How to attract talent for your startup

It's a hard fight for talent, especially in Berlin and within the tech industry. "How to attract talent to my startup... and retain it?" is the single most important question startup founders should ask themselves. It's already hard for bigger companies, but the first few employees are critical for any startup. And if you are small, you will need to do most of the work yourself. So, what will make your life easier?

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If you're a startup-sized company and you are just putting out a job posting, there's no need to brag about how small and hip you are. You may offer remote work days, but so does every other startup (and nowadays nearly every enterprise size company). Here are some tips for any company to attract talent, not only for startups.



#1 Have a clear vision and be inspiring

More than just free beer: What makes your startup different? If you think you can do consulting to earn money while working on your "real" product, you won't attract talent. I have seen enough startups in Berlin who tried to cross-finance their product by working on consulting. And I have never seen this kind of companies succeed. Why would anybody work for you, if you only work on your mission part-time?

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“People with visions should go see the doctor.”
Helmut Schmidt

Market your business as an irreplaceable opportunity that offers a partnership, not just a one-sided relationship. It's the same with any pitch in front of investors: If you talk to anyone you need to be able to sell.



#2 Be a brand

This is true starting with day one. Your brand will distinguish you from your competition. It will make your recognisable. But how do you build up your brand?

Have a good website, not just a placeholder

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Nearly no company should build its company website by hand. Even if you think you are a tech company or you do development with React or any frontend framework: Don't build your website from scratch. Use a website builder! Even WordPress is too complicated and takes too much work. Using a website builder will make your life so much easier, saving you time and money and the result will even be better than you could do manually. Believe me: We sunk thousands of euros into building our company website by hand with our developers. With squarespace for example it's under 20 bucks a month and we rebuild our entire website within 1 day.

Make use of Instagram

I's not about the number of followers you have. It's about being authentic and presenting you as a company. Potential employees will check out your social media and judge you by it. If you look like a great place to work, meaning you are authentic and not doing bullshit corporate PR, people will believe in you. Show who you are and how you work.

  • Just give everyone access, you don't need a strategy or a uniform look.

  • Be authentic and don't do classic PR

  • Post anything from your workplace, talks, cool guests and your current project

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Write a blog

OK, this one requires more work but it will help you in the long run. Post regulary, try to focus on shorter post, have real content. Don't try to advertise yourself or your product. The magic word is content marketing. You are creating useful content for your audience and the marketing effect for your company is only a by-product. Some simple rules:

  • Content is king: This is not a sales channel, it's about good content

  • Writes about events, conferences, culture, ways of working or technologies

  • No PR bullshit, no softening or intervention. Don't censor what your colleagues may write, let them be creative

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You don't know where to setup your blog? Here are some easy options:

  • Medium.com is currently the choice for any technical blogs

  • You are using a website builder? Try the build-in blog from squarespace, wix or whatever you use

  • You want something more powerful? With Ghost.org you can have your own blog and style it the way you want. Only downside: It's a little more on the expansive side.

If you don't have any ideas what to write about, there is a lot of stuff about idea generation on the internet:

#3 Grow through your network

The first two dozen employees should be hired through your network. It's the most reliable way to get really great people without spending a fortune of money and time.

Use your friends

Ask around. Maybe some old friends from school are active in the tech community or know people? Ask them if they know people who would be great for your startup. Ask all of you friends, if the know talented people. Talk to former colleagues.

Do you know my friend Dat Tran? He has over 30k followers on LinkedIn. And I know other people with tens of thousands of followers. Do you know influential people? Ask them for help! If they share your open positions, you get a lot of relevant reach.

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Give talks at conferences and meetups

Being a speaker will have a wide range of benefits for you. You will become better in the topics you need to prepare. You will become better at presenting, which will be crucial for your startup. And you will get to know many people by speaking. But how to start?

  • Start small: Do internal talks, try shorter talks.

  • Write to organizers of different meetups, they are always looking for speakers

  • Apply at conferences (call-for-paper/call-for-proposals) and do it in a timely manner

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Go to networking events

Network constantly. There is a thing called serendipity and maybe you'll find you next employee by chance at an event. In Berlin there are tech festivals, like TOA or re:publica. They are made for networking. Attend meetups, FuckUp Nights, Founder Breakfasts. Nearly every company hosts events. Be present, every evening. If you miss the good old times hanging around at a bar with your friends: Most tech events feature free beer.

  • Go to meetups, host meetups, go to hackathons on weekends

  • Start organising events yourself

  • You need to get informed about all relevant events: Register to any newsletter from co-working spaces, register to any startup newsletter

  • There are a lot of Learning Lunches and Brown Bag Sessions at companies

  • Listen to Podcasts, interact with the podcasts, try to get invited

Use Slack

It's actually quite easy: There are some great slack workspaces out there. For example in Berlin a membership for The Factory is called "the most expansive slack channel in town". A lot of talent hangs around on those slack channels. The best freelancers you can get are not active on overpriced plattforms, you'll find them on slack channels.

#4 Write good job listings

I actually wrote a whole blog post only about this topic (currently only available in German). To make a long story short: Every thing you write should follow the Pareto efficiency, meaning don't say anything what could turn people down. For example "passionate programmer" is better than "backend developer". You won't need too many listing and make them not too specialized. You're trying to sell yourself, so start selling. WHY should someone work for you? That should come first in the listing. Start with WHAT he will do and HOW he will work. It goes on: Why he will LOVE working for you. Here are 5 DOs and DON'Ts.

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  • Forget perks: Nobody will start at your company because of free Club Mate.

  • Forget degrees: A degree in Computer Science does not mean you are a great developer.

  • Forget bullshit: What is an agile & innovative employee? The classic bullshit bingo: Team player, performance-oriented, highly innovative, exciting working environment, competitive payment.

  • Forget numbers: 3-5 years of experience in any field are unimportand. You can become the best after a year and you can make the same experience year after experience.

  • Forget frameworks & languages: Skills you can learn, character you will need to have. It's more about motivation and what somebody wants to do.

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  • Be personal: Show how you are, who is you team?

  • Be concrete: An "exciting working environment" says nothing. Describe how and on what somebody will work.

  • Be foresighted: Nobody wants to work the same job forever. Show how somebody will be able to grow.

  • Be flexible: 40h a week and 9-to-5? Not the dream of most people anymore. Every human is an individual, be flexible about all working conditions.

  • Be a sales(wo)man: You are selling yourself and your business. Why should anybody work for you? Why are you the right employer? Start selling!

#5 If you have $$$, get some help

If you got enough money to spare or you need to scale in a short time, there is always the option to throw money at any problem.

Platforms

All platforms have one thing in common: You get mostly english speaking candidates.

  • honeypot.io: A Berlin based startup and great especially in Berlin to find talent.

  • talent.io: The competitor to honeypot, but the great thing: The people you find on both platforms are mostly disjunct.

  • stackoverflow: If you have a great brand and maybe some of your colleagues already have great profiles on stackoverflow, this can be a great place to advertise your open jobs. You pay per year for one job slot and it's a little bit over 1k€, which is cheaper than any other job listing you can buy.

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Don't use headhunters. Period.

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Extra tip: Forget advertising

To make it short: Don‘t do it. It's expensive, you will get not many reactions. Here are some examples how we wasted money:

  • t3n (with sponsored content)

  • Gründerszene (with top rotation)

  • StepStone (Europes leading job portal)

  • LinkedIn (It is OK if you are open for international employees from all over the world)

#6 You got 24 hours aka define a great candidate experience

From the first contact of someone with your company until after the probation: The candidate experience must be awesome. We track our candidates on a digital Kanban board and every card gets an owner and due dates. The candidate moves through the different lanes and we comment on the cards. You can use Trello or anything else for it. Some simple rules:

  • It's always bi-directional & at eye level. Be polite and never judge anybody.

  • Challenge your candidates. Don't hire anybody after one Skype call. Do coding challenges. Show you value quality.

  • Communicate fast. Answer within 24h. Never let any candidate wait. Always send a follow up / thank you mail afterwards. Promptly send rejection emails.

  • Even if you rejection somebody, make him think of your company as a great place to work.

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Bonus: Retain your talent

It does not help to hire the greatest people, if they leave you after some month. Be a great place to work! Build your company with a mission and vision. Have an awesome culture. I know it might be tempting, but don't grind your people.

Remember one thing: Think of your employees as the internal customers of your company. You are providing them with work and purpose.

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What do you think did I miss? What were your experiences as a startup hiring people?

Sebastian WaschnickComment